S. Bullock, Royal, Bardon; Spence, Stone, Carpenter, Bayley, Sherratt; Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Daniel. Opus Arte 7134 (Blu-ray) or 1124 (DVD), 163 mins. (opera) & 13 mins. (bonus), subtitled
Act II of Britten's Gloriana, written to commemorate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, opens with a scene that parodies the context of its creation — a ceremonial masque honoring the opera's title character, Queen Elizabeth I. With its a cappella choral ballet, the divertissement is both splendid and odd, its air of festivity subverted by Britten's restrained compositional manner.The opera was a notorious flop in 1953, and the strangeness of this scene may help explain why. The occasion called for patriotic celebration, but Gloriana is cloaked in twentieth-century ambiguity.
Sixty years after the fact, the circumstances of the work's composition hardly seem like the opera's most interesting element, but Richard Jones's 2013 Covent Garden production makes use of them. A youthful Elizabeth II gets a cameo: she has come to witness the opera that has been composed in her honor. The opera's actual premiere was at Covent Garden, but Ultz's sets indicate that it is here being performed in a "coronation hall" — a provincial assembly space built in honor of the new monarch. The hall's "stage" accommodates the opera proper, while in the (onstage) "wings," a contingent of production personnel in mid-century garb — a stage manager, a prompter, "offstage" instrumentalists — execute their duties. Making his strategy all too clear, Jones hands the work's prelude over to a troupe of prepubescent Boy Scouts, holding placards that announce Britain's monarchs in backwards order from the present Elizabeth to Gloriana herself.
Jones's framing device tends to get in the way of the central business at hand — the intrigues at court and the queen's doomed infatuation with the Earl of Essex. But it does impose a distancing effect that correlates with Britten's detached, modernist perspective. And the utilitarian, even ugly, architectural details of the coronation hall deliberately take us out of a glorified imperial past: we are watching a world that was no doubt as ordinary as our own. Meanwhile, the business on the stage-within-a-stage (Gloriana itself, that is) could hardly be bettered: consistently lively, it simultaneously evokes life at court and four centuries of theatrical convention. Jones's inventive approach draws out the extraordinary richness of the piece. In fact, it is hard to imagine from this disc why Gloriana, with its compelling central drama and its kaleidoscopic score, could ever have been considered a failure.
Toby Spence's Essex is blandly handsome and subtly bratty; both aspects allow us to see how the courtier could entrance and then betray his queen. His limpid rendition of the lute song "Happy were he" turns it into a moment of true enchantment. Mark Stone — as Mountjoy, Essex's rival and, later, ally — does not exactly present the mien of the "youngling" that Elizabeth describes, but he sings with warmth and beauty. Kate Royal has some shrill moments as Penelope, Lady Rich — Essex's sister and Mountjoy's lover — but she is every inch the haughty aristocratic beauty. Patricia Bardon, as Essex's wife, Frances, conveys the proper mix of passivity and resolve in her gamesmanship with the queen. Jeremy Carpenter has the right saturnine looks for Lord Cecil, the queen's advisor; I only wish that his diction had made Cecil's venomous counsel easier to follow. Bass Brindlay Sherratt gets a tour-de-force moment as the blind ballad-singer announcing Essex's disgrace. Much of the musical success of the performance can be credited to conductor Paul Daniel, whose immaculate leadership brings out the variegated flavors of Britten's music — its dazzling mix of sixteenth-century pastiche and modern declamation.
Then there's the matter of Gloriana. Susan Bullock's assured stage manner suggests Elizabeth's majestic authority, but the sound she produces is woefully pinched and abrasive. It isn't simply that her vocal tone is unpleasant in itself; it imposes a querulousness quite out of keeping with the character: this is the voice of a gossipy next-door neighbor, not a grand monarch. Bullock's singing deprives the role of the tragic dimension that should be its defining element.
Huge cheers erupt at the curtain calls, with the loudest saved for the production team. The sense is that Jones and company have rescued this opera from the dust heap and given it its rightful place in the repertory. I can only hope that it remains there — and that I get an opportunity to encounter it with a more interesting Gloriana at its center.
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